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John McLaughlin on the Mystery of Creativity, Inspiration, & Music

Alan Bryson By

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AAJ: That's great, thank you for that answer.

JM (Laughs) I hope it makes sense to you, because it's hard to talk about music isn't it?

AAJ: Yes it is, and this subject is fascinating. You meet so many people out on tour, so you may know this person already, the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, is he someone you've met?

JM Yes! I know his nephew, I've been in communication with him, and he sent me an autographed book from Oliver. It's fascinating.

AAJ: Oh great, that's what I wanted to ask you about. I've just started reading it, I'm talking about "Musicophilia" which deals with music and the brain. The really fascinating thing about it for music lovers, is that most of us just accept music as a given. But Dr. Sacks points out in his book that even Charles Darwin was really puzzled by human musicality and he called it a mystery he couldn't explain. He also mentioned the science fiction author Arthur Clarke, he wrote a novel about alien overlords who came to earth, they were super intelligent, but they couldn't experience music, and they couldn't understand why we were moved by it. Although they could, on an intellectual level, see rhythm, harmony, notes, and understand the complexity of music, but they couldn't appreciate it.

Then Dr. Sacks points out that there are a few people who are normal in every way, except that their brain can't process music. If they turn on the radio, it sounds like a horrible noise, like nails on a chalkboard.

So I wanted to ask you your thoughts about where music actually comes from?

JM Well the answer, it's obviously a big mystery. Let me come back to the title of the album, "Black Light." It's one of the more irrational statements that I've made, because if you're thinking in a logical way, black light is nonsense. But we're irrational beings. We like to be rational sometimes, but art is completely irrational because it doesn't mean anything except what it is. It doesn't refer to anything, yes when we improvise we tell our life story in a capsule, but this is done spontaneously. But black light to me expresses the thought, how am I able to see images in my head where there is no light.

How am I able to hear the music? How does music that I've never heard before, come into my mind? I can hear it, it's music that's never been played. This is new music, and this is what happens when I make a record. How is this possible? How is it possible that I'm hearing new music that is coming into my mind, I hear it and I write it down.

I haven't the faintest idea how it happens! I have no idea, and "why?" is not even a question I can pose. "Why?" doesn't belong in the irrational world, because it's completely irrational. I have no idea how this music comes to me.

I talk to my painter friends, they have no idea. I have one particular friend who paints, he's one of the great wild animal painters in the world. He tells me, "It comes into my head, my mind, I see it in its totality!" I asked him, "How is this possible?" He says, "I have no idea." What can I answer? I'm confronted with the same mystery every time music comes into my head that I've never heard before. It's inexplicable, it has no logic, it has no reference to anything other than it is what it is.

I mean, I read Oliver Sacks, and I've read another book by an Indian brain surgeon. He is capable of recognizing a musician's brain, physically. That's far out. He says it has different kinds of convolutions between the two hemispheres than a typical brain. He said the thing that happens is that there are lots of synapses that grow between the left and the right hemispheres because of the necessity of discipline, which is logical, married with the completely irrational instinctive spontaneous nonthinking side—the global side and the personal side. He said that he can recognize that, and that really blew my mind too.

So the answer to your question is frankly Alan, I have no idea. It's been a mystery my whole life and here I am, 73 years old and I still don't know. I'm just thankful and amazed every time it happens.

AAJ: It's an incredible thing. You know John I'm sure you remember when that first synthesizer album came out, it was called Switched On Bach.

JM Oh yeah, I remember it very well!

AAJ: That was a really big thing, and it was interesting because young people were suddenly able to appreciate Bach, and they didn't do anything to it except play it through a synthesizer. I can remember thinking to myself when I heard it, that Bach seems to have tapped into something that must be like a universal law, like mathematics. I don't think mathematicians created math, but they were able to identify the laws of mathematics. There's an elegance to it, and it works. Somehow I wonder, is music simply inherent in the universe, and someone like Bach is particularly adept at drawing upon that universal elegance that is so timeless.

JM Oh absolutely, and I would have to include Mozart. I absolutely agree with you. I know for a fact that infinite music and infinite ideas, whether they are mathematical, or whether they are art, they exist continuously, and they've existed since the birth of the universe.

I think mathematicians, scientists, astronomers, astrophysicists, artists, painters, and musicians need to profoundly love what we do. Then in a way, the love makes a connection to that realm where all these idea have always existed and always will exist. I know it sounds like science fiction, but I'm absolutely convinced of this. When I'm truly inspired, then I get access to this realm. How logical is inspiration, how can you classify inspiration in a logical manner? It's impossible, there's no logic to it, it just is what it is.

We all experience inspiration in our own way, and we become immediately aware of the new state we're in, when we are in a state of inspiration. It's beyond the normal state of the mind, we're in another state of mind. This other state of consciousness gives us access to places that are inside of us—everything is inside of us in consciousness, I'm convinced of this.

You're talking to an old hippie Alan. I did LSD quite a lot in the '60s, until such time as I realized that everything was in me, and what was important was to learn how to access it, and the only way I can access it, is that I stop taking LSD. Then I started practicing yoga, and then meditation.


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